After pressure from student newspaper and faculty, Calif. community college walks back from restrictive media policy

CALIFORNIA — A community college in California is scrapping a policy that requested faculty go through a public relations department before answering reporters’ questions, college and district officials say.

On March 12, the public relations team at Skyline College emailed an announcement to faculty, reminding them of the school’s media policy. The message instructs faculty not to answer questions without the team’s approval and explains that the policy applies to The Skyline View, the student-run publication, as well as professional organizations.

In an email to faculty March 18, the school said it would reevaluate the policy after hearing the “dialogue, concerns and questions among the campus community.”

“The College is committed to continuing to be transparent, open and honest with the media,” the email said, adding that the issues raised by faculty will be addressed in a new statement — rather than a “policy” — on faculty media relations, which will go to a faculty government body for approval.

The Skyline View exposed the policy in a March 13 editorial. In a letter to the editor March 20, Skyline President Regina Stanback Stroud apologized to the newspaper and the community. “I am committed as the President of the college to ensuring that we continue to be transparent, open and honest with the media,” she wrote.

The media policy, which college spokeswoman Cherie Colin said was implemented in January, explicitly told faculty to ask that reporters submit questions in writing. The policy also states that it was “designed to protect the Brand and image of the College,” asking faculty to “not directly answer any questions” posed by media.

“Please forward the questions and your suggested responses to the Director of Marketing, Communications and Public Relations, Cherie Colin,” the policy stated. “MCPR will review the responses, make any necessary changes and forward them on your behalf to the appropriate person.”

There is also a “tip” that warns faculty to never engage in “off-the-record” conversations with reporters.

“ ‘Off-record’ conversations can be used to compile information, which may be in opposition of the College’s position or could be used to portray the College negatively,” the policy stated.

This statement has been misunderstood, Colin said. It was not a suggestion that faculty should distrust the media, she said.

“My experience in PR has taught me that you shouldn’t say anything in the press you wouldn’t want to see in writing,” Colin said.

Colin said there was never an intent to limit faculty’s right to freedom of speech. In the future, any faculty guidelines pertaining to the media will be treated as suggestions.

“It was badly written, and we’re completely reevaluating it,” Colin said. Faculty can freely speak to the media without punishment, Colin said, “especially if they’re just representing their own opinion.”

Barbara Christensen, a spokeswoman for the San Mateo County Community College District, which includes Skyline College, said the college was out of bounds in stipulating this kind of policy.

“The college doesn’t set policy, the district does,” Christensen said.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California-based First Amendment Coalition, said this policy falls under a “confused area” of the First Amendment.

Essentially, if a faculty member is speaking as a citizen — about politics, for example — then he or she can voice that opinion, and it will be constitutionally protected. Situations get less clear when an employee publicly talks about his or her employer.

“The law seems to draw a line on what the professor is talking about,” Scheer said. “If the professor is talking about cutbacks within his own academic department or a decision to deny tenure to someone in his specialty, under the law he might be then speaking more as an employee and has less protection as a result.”

These types of blanket restrictions could be seen as an attempt to form “one unit” or image for the college by way of regulating the personal, differing views of faculty, said Jim Ewert, general counsel at the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

“The courts have found the ability of employers to limit the speech rights of employees … with respect to the employer’s operations. It certainly does not extend to the employee’s own political views,” Ewert said. “I guess that is why there is a potential First Amendment implication here.”

Ewert questioned why the college felt the need to impose this policy now, though he acknowledged the school made the right move by axing it. The community should always have access to “unfiltered information,” especially when it comes from a government agency, like a public school, he said.

“I think the response indicates that (the school) underestimated the resolve and reaction of the academic faculty and the community at large,” Ewert said.

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.